It’s a shame, really, that many of ABC’s long time soap operas have been cancelled and will be going off the air in September. All My Children and One Life to Live were a “guilty pleasure” when I was a teenager, even through the days of story lines that seemed much more like an episode of Dr. Who or James Bond than daytime drama. In the days before Facebook and Twitter, before cell phones and texting, being a teen in the ’80’s meant we had to use landlines and the bus to gossip about the people we knew (or didn’t know) and spread stories about “that kid I knew from camp’s second cousin’s brother said that happened to him, I swear!” Since often our own social circles were small enough that the repercussions from being the hub of all news and gossip was pretty negative, we could live out our need to judge other people vicariously through soaps. We could fantasize about how cute Jon Stamos was, or how Rick Springfield could be a Doctor on General Hospital and such a great musician, making every teen wish they were Jesse’s Girl and could somehow attract his undying devotion as well.
Soap operas, like telenovellas are often morality plays and ways in which our brains and our lovely motor neurons can watch other people behave in ways we might never have the guts to, and see the resulting success or disaster. So for example, if Erica Kane of All My Children gets married and divorced more often than teen age boys change their underwear, we can both pity her, envy her- whatever we want- with no real world consequences, because it’s all safe and pretend. It’s a sink for all of our personal drama and emotions, where you can gossip about these people with your friends and neighbors with no real world consequences at all.
Fast Forward to 2011. Fast Company writes an article asking if the cancellation of the soaps, which started losing audience in the 70’s, means the death to daytime drama all together. What I think everyone is missing here is why soaps began to lose their audience in the first place, and why they aren’t needed as much as ever before. Here are 5 reasons why soaps, despite their delicious, guilty pleasure aspects are likely Gone with the Wind:
1. Changing workforce demographics and less free time. Starting in the 70’s, many more women went back to work. That’s true even more today, so the overall number of people looking for TV entertainment during the day is smaller than it used to be. Even the latchkey kids don;t get home soon enough to be a reasonable audience.
2. Rise of The Talk Show Gradually, over this same period, shows like Phil Donahue and Oprah came along, starting to explore topics that were never talked about on TV. Even Oprah is ending her reign over afternoon TV after 25 years. While Oprah always dealt with difficult topics with tact and sensitivity, this was often replaced by folks like Maury and Jerry Springer, where the audience and guests seemed to be more interested in seeing the fight (like waiting for accidents in Nascar or fights at a hockey match) than what was actually being discussed or solving any problems rationally. It makes for exciting TV, and if you’re a soap opera, how do you compete, with your close up shots, tears and meaningful moments, with women getting ready to deck their cheating spouses three channels away? No contest, even if it doesn’t appeal to any higher values we pretend to hold.
3. Rise of Reality TV. There’s a whole genre of shows out there now, ranging from Survivor (which is an intentional set-up that seems reminiscent of some old soap “stranded on the desert island” story lines) to the Housewives of Beverly Hills to Cops and even shows like Biggest Loser and America’s Next Top Model that have drama and discrete story lines and type-casting that put most soap plots to shame. If you want to see drama in young girls, watch Top Model. If you want to see housewives mixing it up behind closed doors, there’s both the non-reality “Desperate Housewives” as well as the Bravo series to fill the bill. While the casts vary, the basic human characters and archetypes don’t change all that much. And again, how can Vicky Bucannan and her family’s newspaper business (at least that’s what they did in the 80’s) on One Life to Live compare to Tyra Banks handing some girl a modeling contract and tons of cash?
4. Cable, Internet and the Explosion of Choice. Between the infinite number of channels and the availability of programming in demand both through TV and computers, I can see almost anything any time I want to. No longer limited to the 4 major networks, the fragmenting of audiences up and down the dial means soaps are no longer the only afternoon choice between 1 and 4 pm. With all these choices, I’d really have to prioritize soaps, and with all the other ways to get my entertainment needs met, well, it’s hard to compete.
5. Social media- the Killer App. The main thrust of this whole post is right here- why do we need soap operas to fulfill our needs to live vicariously through others when we have twitter and Facebook? You no longer have to guess at what’s going on behind closed doors, people tell you voluntarily! You can destroy your own reputation or that of others with a few simple photo posts from your cell phone! With the Wall Street Journal reporting that 1 out of 5 divorces are caused by Facebook, and that 66% of lawyers claim that Facebook provides the primary source of evidence in divorce proceedings, you have all the drama you can stand at your fingertips, without even working hard to collect it. You don’t even need to speculate!
So in case it isn’t clear, the point to all of this is that soaps have been replaced in our lives by being able to watch the salacious details of real people on TV or even people we know personally so frequently, we have no need to live vicariously through them. We don’t need too many unlikely contrivances that result in long lost daughters or people coming back from the dead or the like of Soap Land, and if we want some of that, there’s always Survivor and the Amazing Race.
But by taking away this safe way to experience dramatic emotions without having to actually act them out in our personal lives, you can’t help but think the soap opera will still come to digital media. The reasons why the soaps worked as TV and as an art form was this sense of vicarious thrill and schadenfreude of being somewhat more put together than others. Now, depending on the network we self-select, we can either feel better about ourselves or much worse by looking at our twitter stream. Do you want to be Chris Brogan? Would you rather be Michael Arrington? Follow them and mirror their moves!
Unfortunately, reality still comes to bear when we realize that we still have to be the people we are, and live with the consequences, good and bad of our actions. Our actions just have a much wider audience than we realize, as I found out when my friends started commenting on my son’s change in relationship status when he announced he was “taken” on Facebook. (Middle school crush…) Opening the books of our lives makes many fewer things a secret, which both keeps us honest but also makes our mistakes and errors in judgment all that much harder to overcome. Even Republican Presidential contender Rick Santorum has a Google Problem these days.
Besides our sense of privacy and keeping our baser natures in check, the only thing we’re really going to lose and miss by the death of the soap is a training ground for really great actors that had to deal with new material and crazier story lines almost every day. Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, and even Elizabeth Taylor appeared on soaps. John Stamos, Demi Moore and Kelly Ripa busted their chops in daytime drama. And if you need 10,000 hours of experience to get good at acting, I guess we are going to have to look to the Disney Channel to find all of our next great artists, in which case, I fear for the future of TV as a whole.